Henry Box Brown: Biography, Quotes & Facts

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has a bachelor's degree in history and a master's degree in teaching. She previously taught high school in several states around the country.

Henry ''Box'' Brown was an enslaved man living in Virginia in the early 1800s. Eager to get his freedom, Brown shipped himself in a box to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. In this lesson, learn how this daring feat ended!

A Desperate Escape

''I now began to get weary of my bonds; and earnestly panted after liberty. I felt convinced that I should be acting in accordance with the will of God, if I could snap in sunder those bonds by which I was held body and soul as the property of a fellow man. I looked forward to the good time which every day I more and more firmly believed would yet come, when I should walk the face of the earth in full possession of all that freedom.''

--Henry ''Box'' Brown, an African-American slave living in Virginia in the early 1800s

As the above quote shows, the institution of slavery was a cruel and wicked system that pushed many slaves to search for ways to escape its evils. Like many other slaves, Henry ''Box'' Brown risked his life and punishment by trying to escape to the North. What makes Henry ''Box'' Brown unique however was the unusual way in which he escaped. Brown was able to escape by shipping himself in a box to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society. Let's learn more about Brown and his amazing escape.


Henry Brown was born in Louisa County, Virginia in 1815. Virginia was a state that not only allowed slavery, but had many slaves. At the age of 15, he was sent to a tobacco factory in Richmond, Virginia. Brown was married, but could not live with his wife because she worked at a different location. In 1848, his wife (who was pregnant at the time) and their three children were sent to a plantation in North Carolina. Brown witnessed his wife and children walking in chains with many other slaves who were on their way to North Carolina. This was the turning point for Brown--the moment when he decided he needed to escape from slavery. He got to work on creating a unique plan.


Brown said that his plan to escape came from God, who told him, ''Go and get a box, and put yourself in it.'' That is exactly what Brown did! Brown asked his friend James Caesar Anthony Smith, a free black, and a white sympathizer, Samuel Smith, for help. Samuel Smith contacted a member of the Anti-Slavery Society in Philadelphia for the group's assistance on receiving Brown once he arrived in the north.

The day before he left, he burnt his hand with sulphuric acid at work so that he would have a reason to be absent the following day. On March 23, 1849, Brown put himself in a box that was three feet long, two feet deep and about two and a half feet wide. The box was lined with cloth to dampen the noise. Brown shipped himself with a few biscuits and one container of water to keep himself alive along the way. There was also a small hole in the top of the box so that he could breathe. Adams Express Company shipped Brown for $86. This company had no idea that they were actually shipping a slave, since the box was labeled ''Dry Goods.''

On the 27-hour journey, Brown traveled on wagons, railroads, steamboats and ferries. Even though the box was labeled with a sign ''This side up,'' Brown still got tossed around several times. At one point, Brown said that he felt he would die since he ''felt his eyes swelling as if they would burst from their sockets; and the veins on my temples were dreadfully distended with pressure of blood upon my head.''

An 1850 image of Henry Brown arriving to his freedom in Philadelphia

The following day, Brown was delivered to the Philadelphia Anti-Slavery Society where William Still, James Miller McKim, C.D. Cleveland and Lewis Thompson opened the box. Once opened, Brown greeted the men saying, ''How do you do, Gentleman'' said then recited the psalm ''I waited patiently on the Lord and He heard my prayer.''

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